Former FBI agent John J. Connolly Jr. was both pleased and shocked that a Florida appeals court had sided with him and threw out his second-degree murder conviction for the 1982 slaying of businessman John Callahan, one of Connolly’s attorneys said Thursday.
The 2-to-1 ruling by the Third District Court of Appeal creates the very real possibility that the 73-year-old Connolly will become a free man in the near future, especially if Attorney General Pam Bondi decides not to appeal, attorneys said.
In a phone interview Thursday, Miami attorney James E. McDonald said he spoke with Connolly Wednesday night after the ruling had become public.
“I know people up there think he is a criminal and all that, but John has steadfastly professed his innocence, that he is not a criminal,’’ he said. “I know your [Boston Globe] paper and the popular culture up there believes he is a criminal, so he was expecting the worse.’’
But when the court ruled in his favor, McDonald said, Connolly was relieved. “He was pleasantly surprised,’’ said McDonald, who is among several attorneys who have represented Connolly over the years. McDonald is a former FBI agent and federal prosecutor who worked with Connolly briefly in San Francisco, but got involved because he believes in his innocence.
McDonald would not provide extensive details about his conversation with Connolly, but said the one-time Lynnfield resident expressed relief.
“Let’s put it this way, he is probably shocked,’’ he said. “He’s had such a difficult time. And to finally be vindicated . . . I would say he [is] pleased.’’
In 2009, Connolly was sentenced to 40 years in prison after jurors heard he had tipped off Bulger and Stephen “The Rifleman” Flemmi that Callahan would probably tell the FBI that the Boston mobsters were involved in the 1981 murder of World Jai Alai executive Roger Wheeler in Oklahoma.
McDonald called Connolly, a Boston College graduate, a “good Catholic boy’’ who still attends weekly Mass in prison. McDonald said that Connolly is devoted to now Saint John Paul II, whom Connolly met when the pontiff visited Boston in 1979.
Connolly prays to the late pontiff constantly and credits the saint with healing him from a recent illness, his lawyer said. McDonald said Connolly told him he prayed to the saint Wednesday, one day before the scheduled release of the ruling in his case.
McDonald said Connolly was convicted based on testimony of people like John Martorano, the hit man who admitted killing Callahan. The lawyer said such witnesses are willing to say whatever prosecutors want to hear in order to stay out of prison themselves.
Callahan’s bullet-riddled body was discovered in the trunk of a parked car at Miami International Airport in 1982.
The appeals court in Florida identified a major flaw in Connolly’s case.
Connolly was convicted in 2008 of second-degree murder with a firearm. A judge “reclassified,” or upgraded, the crime because a firearm had been involved. If the crime had not been reclassified, it would have been barred by a four-year statute of limitations.
The problem for the prosecution, the court said, was that Connolly did not wield the gun that was used to shoot Callahan. Callahan was actually shot by Martorano while Connolly was in Massachusetts, the evidence showed. That meant the crime should never have been upgraded, and Connolly should go free, the court said.
John R. Ellement can be reached at ellement@